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John Waters is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, which have earned him the titles "pope of[…]

The filmmaker was raised with “fascist-ly good taste”—which is probably why he rebelled. But he’s thankful for this upbringing because “you can’t have fun with bad taste unless you know the rules to break.”

Question: Is bad taste something you’re born with or something you have to learn?

John Waters: Well, I might be a... I know bad taste, but to know bad taste you have to know all the rules of good taste, which my parents painstakingly taught me.  That’s probably why I rebelled.  It was almost fascist-ly good taste I was raised with.  But I’m thankful for it actually because you can’t have fun with bad taste unless you know the rules to break.

Question: How can bad taste be used creatively in art and fashion?

John Waters: I actually think I have good taste.  I don’t think I have bad taste.  I think fashion can use bad taste, certainly.  Fashion can take the worst thing that everybody threw out and make everybody want to spend too much money and buy it again.  That’s a magic trick. That’s art isn’t it?  That’s not bad taste. That’s brilliance, if you ask me. 

But taste is ever-changing.  And I always tell kids, if you want a change... start a fashion revolution, you get on the fashion nerves of the people that are three years older than you that are hip.  Not your parents.  You have to get the people that were your age that just discovered something and you’ve got to knock them down from that... I don’t know, that mantle of fashion success to start your own. 

So obviously when you’re young, thrift shops are the place to go.  But I can’t find anything in thrift shops anymore, so I spend too much money on clothes that look like they were the worst thing in a thrift shop.  But if you’re young, you really can buy the worst thing in a thrift shop and look really, really fashionable and pull it off.

Question: Why do you describe your aesthetic as “disaster in a dry cleaners”?

John Waters: With a lot of designers I like, it does look like something’s wrong with them and I have a really good cleaner in Baltimore that’s finally learned how to do everything because the dry cleaning instructions on some of these clothes are hilarious.  I mean, you’d think The Onion wrote them.  I mean, they’re... but they’re so complicated; yes, fabric may fade, rip, bleach, become discolored. What?  You just paid $1,000.  But it’s kind of great because it’s fashion in reverse.  And then I can wear these clothes to, like, blue collar bars in Baltimore and nobody thinks you’re bragging.  No, they’re anything but ostentatious.  They say to me in Baltimore: “That’s a shame about that shirt.”  And they don’t know that it cost $1,000, so it’s hilarious I think.  It’s like the same reason Andy Warhol supposedly sometimes under his Gap turtleneck wore a $100,000 woman’s necklace.  Nobody could see it, but he knew he had it on.  It’s the same principle.  It’s not bragging and it’s not condescending to other people and it’s not using fashion to... the fashion I’d never wear has designer names or logos on it or anything like that.  But that’s for the... that’s for the people that are overly insecure about their fashion taste.

Recorded September 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller